On 29th October 1998 the front page of the New York Times reported that an extremely ugly, unprepossessing book had just been sold at Christies New York for us$2,000,000. It appeared to be the battered prayer book of a medieval priest, charred by fire, doused with water, and devoured by mould. Yet underneath the prayers, barely visible below the stains and the soot, lay hidden the oldest surviving manuscript of the ancient world's greatest mathematitian, Archimedes of Syracuse.
This is the true story of the greatest scientific codex extant today: the Archimedes Palimpsest. over a thousand years old, this codex survived against all odds. It travelled through crusades and world wars, from east to west and overseas. But only now, thanks to ultra-modern imaging techniques, are its hidden contents finally being brought to light with surprising results that will fundamentally change our understanding of the history of science.
I wasnt too sure what to expect from this one. I was hoping for more details of the original text itself but was a little disappointed to find it was more the tale of how the researchers uncovered and revealed said text.
What little of the content they did include I found really quite interesting, but by far the most fascinating section for me was the description of the materials used in the manufacture of the book: the pages of parchment (sheepskin treated with pumice and egg white) and the ink, made from gallic acid and various chemicals. It was really quite fascinating to read how the ink was made, and I plan to try making some myself.
The imaging technology used to reveal the long lost writings of Archimedes was quite an achievement, and in many places quite groundbreaking. Such technology could be adapted to a number of purposes, and I believe has in fact already been applied by other fields.
All in all though this book wasnt at all what I was hoping for, or expecting, it did capture my attention enough to finish it but its not one I would recommend as casual reading to any but the most die-hard scientific readers. Its quite dry stuff really but it holds a lot of intellectual appeal, for those who find it so.
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